Hand-Holding: More Intimate Than Sex?

HandholdingWhich is more intimate? Handholding or a hand job?

A young woman attending a college workshop on sexual assault was shocked to hear men say they thought handholding was more intimate than sex.

After all, they held hands with women they cared about. They could get a hand job — or even intercourse — from any old hookup.

Well, I’m perplexed, too. 

People often reach out and grab the hand of someone they have just met and it rarely bothers anyone. But the thought of reaching out and grabbing an acquaintance’s “privates” seems … well, inappropriate, disgusting, horrifying.

Being physically naked, vulnerable and entwined, yet emotionally remote, just feels weird to me. Aloof intimacy seems like an oxymoron.

But then, I missed hookup culture. And the shocked young woman, who was just starting college, was just being introduced to it.

Actually, the phenomenon can bewilder those who’ve lived through it, too.

Lena Dunham, writer, producer and star of HBO’s critically acclaimed GIRLS, explained to New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni:

I’ve heard so many of my friends saying, ‘Why can’t I have sex and feel nothing?’ It was amazing: that this was the new goal.”

Others say they must be drunk to tolerate it.

Maybe it’s not so strange, after all, to feel that being physically open and vulnerable — without accompanying trust and connection — is a bit bizarre.

Maybe that’s why three-quarters of college students — both men and women — say they prefer relationship sex.

You're a notch in my belt.

You’re a notch in my belt.

Still, as Ms. Dunham points out, plenty of women still think that physical intimacy sans emotional intimacy is something to aim for.

Maybe that’s because it’s widely thought that that’s how guys do sex. And we tend to value men and men’s ways over women and women’s ways.

Even when those ways are more stereotypical than real. Remember that three-quarters of men would rather intimately connect with both body and soul.

Something seems madly amiss to me when handholding feels more intimate than sex. If you feel otherwise, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 12, 2015, in men, psychology, relationships, sex and sexuality, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. Hand holding is more intimate. At least to me. It shows that I’ve chosen this person to be with me outside of just what our private parts are doing. They are my partner.

    Sex can be just sex. A physical release of pleasure shared between two adults. It doesn’t have to be intimate or have anything to do with emotions.

    I totally believe that it’s up to you in regards to how much of yourself you give during shags. I’ve given the latest man access all passes and that entirely different to what I’ve been giving friends, acquaintances and fuck buddies.

    So yes, it is possible. I believe that there’s a spectrum of sexual liaisons just like there is a spectrum for sexuality and everything else.

    • Thanks. I plan to write a follow-up post that creates a dialogue between what I wrote here and what some of my readers think.

    • Sharn,

      “It shows that I’ve chosen this person to be with me outside of just what our private parts are doing. They are my partner.”

      Interesting because what research shows is when a woman chooses a man to be with outside of sex (partner, husband, etc), the sex stops happening or is greatly diminished.

      So, the real problem I see with this position is: 1) on the one hand sex can be reduced by someone such as yourself to an act similar to smoking a blunt but 2) intimacy diminish the primacy of sex.

      Hence, I think it is women like yourself who create sexless long-term relationships and marriages. This is not a personal attack on you. I am assuming you are a woman. You certainly sound like one to me.

      Anyhow, while what you say is in fact possible. It is with serious and negative consequences to your partner.

      • Hmmm i can see how you would think that.

        However I’ve always been the more sexual of all my long term partners so your theory doesn’t quite fit.

        I just realise that there are different types of sex and that not all of them have to be intimate. And that doesn’t negate me from actually being able to have a loving and sexuality fulfilling life in a relationship.

    • “And that doesn’t negate me from actually being able to have a loving and sexuality fulfilling life in a relationship.”

      Yes. The operative word here is “me.”

      What about your partner in the relationship?

      • What about my partner?

        I expect them to be adult and talk to me about any issues they have and most have been and we work through it like a normal adult relationship. My partners always get sexually fulfilled in our relationships and your points are still invalid.

        Thanks for trying to mansplain myself to me though, being a woman I obviously don’t know my own sexuality.

  2. Not only holding hands, but also hugging and spending some cosy moment may score above sex. During some situations, the process is more important than the end-result. In such circumstances, end result leads you towards a position where there is no further progress. Sex is that end point, holding hands is the process. Process gives us that exciting feel of ‘What’s next’, and this is not the case with the end-point. It is easier to sustain the pleasure of holding hands, as compared to the sex-derived pleasure. I am talking about the long-lasting relationships, my views would not apply to the casual ones. 🙂

    • Thanks. I really appreciate getting a variety of views on this post.

    • “Sex is that end point, holding hands is the process. Process gives us that exciting feel of ‘What’s next’, and this is not the case with the end-point. It is easier to sustain the pleasure of holding hands, as compared to the sex-derived pleasure.’

      Why is sex always the end game? This is why when people say they are dating casually, I think it is dating until the sex happens. Then it is on to another one. If the process is more important, then if it’s two dates with hugging and kissing then sex, you are happy? I don’t get it.

      Should not the overall relationship WITH sex as a component be the end game. Hugging and kissing someone strictly as a “process” for sex seems pretty screwed up to me. But, what ever floats your boat.

      Maybe I should start using sex workers and call it a day! Lol!

      • I really appreciate the fact that you have expressed your views here. I have clearly stated that my viewpoint applies to the long-lasting relationships, dating does not qualify as that. I respect your views, I just expressed mine. Thank you 🙂

  3. intimacy maybe, emotional release,no

  4. Haha! Oh goodness, does this take me back to my own undergraduate years–and the fatuous comments I used to make about “holding hands as a way to make love in public.” I would certainly have called hand-holding more intimate than sex. I needed to see physical intimacy and emotional intimacy as separate, not because (at least in my case!) they didn’t involve the same two people, but just because they were both new, big things to learn to handle as an adult! Getting a handle on the mechanics of naked bodies in close proximity in a way that minimized embarrassment and maximized enjoyment for the participants was hard enough without thinking about emotions at the same time.

    But the next day, clothes back on, “holding hands” implied all the other stuff: intimate conversation, *feeling* close without necessarily *being* quite close physically. Holding hands in public meant making an emotional statement and commitment in front of our peers. This was all really big stuff to learn, too!

    Anyhow, that’s what *I* meant as a young adult, when elevating the intimacy status of holding hands. Probably not the same thing everyone means–but (as you indicate with the stats on how many college kids prefer “relationship sex”) I believe the hand-waving horror in certain quarters over ZOMG HOOK-UP CULTURE! is terribly misplaced.

  5. For me, I’m intimate in my relationship with a person, and not by doing any particular action with them. So handholding with my HUSBAND would be more intimate than sex with a stranger, but sex with my husband is more intimate than holding hands with my husband.

    The idea that there is an inherent level of intimacy in any particular action seems odd to me.

    • A lot of food for thought here. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

    • Wow!

      So, having sexual intercourse with a stranger has less of an emotional impact than holding the hand of your husband?

      I guess this is why women are far more annoyed with emotional affairs by their partners with other women while we men are more annoyed when our partners has sexual affairs with other men.

      As a man I find your view very puzzling. But, it is your view. Allowing a perfect stranger to enter your body as well as the exchange of bodily fluids is a serious matter. thus, I would think it would mean a heck of lot more than holding hands.

  6. I find hand-holding and having sex difficult to compare. The former implies love and caring having sex may be the outcome of the former or just passion.

    Regards!

  7. If a person can or wants to have physical intimacy without being emotionally involved, then the statement makes sense to me. I personally never felt that way. The thought of lying naked in bed with someone, touching the most intimate parts of her body and getting touched everywhere myself, putting my tongue in her mouth and so on without having a strong emotional connection with that person, always made me feel strange. To me it is definitively more intimate than hand holding. It probably is a matter of personality and the superficial, primarily pleasure-oriented nature of sexuality, at the risk of sounding too sex-negative.

  8. Holding hands, hugging each other,cuddling are intimate than having sex.

  9. Sex and intimacy can be compartmentalized for many people. Not for me. They go together.

    Holding hands (or kissing) is an act of intimacy. Sex is also an act of intimacy. However, I can see how for many people neither holding hand nor sex are acts of intimacy. Just nothing.

    When you compartmentalize these things, it makes it rather easy to see other people as mere sex objects or just intimacy objects. A woman for example can desire Carl for hand holding/intimacy but crave Justin for sex. How can a woman complain about being viewed as a sex object when she too engages in the same behavior?

    This sort of mentality is destined to create a socially dysfunctional society. Just my view.

    • I don’t think either women or men should be objectified. I’m not sure what and intimacy object would be. That doesn’t make sense to me. If you feel close and intimate with someone you would have to see them as a person, right?

      • I get what you are saying.

        But I am sure when people have casual sex or hookups….they also see the individual as a person. However, I would argue they see them as a person of sexual interest. That’s it. Even though it is consensual, the person is merely consenting to be used for sexual gratification. Right?

        Intimacy to me means friendship, at a bare minimum. So, if there is someone whom you only call for hugs and kisses then you only care for them for that reason only. For example, Carl is just for cuddling etc.

      • Well I don’t consider “Carl is just for cuddling” as actual intimacy.

  10. I think it depends how you see sex…. just as an act. If you make love though that is definitely more intimate than holding hands.

  11. I think that handholding can be very intimate- and it can also not be- depending, of course, on whose hand you are holding. I do think people who are into each other beyond just the physical are more likely to hold hands for that intimacy than if it is “just sex.”. That said, w/ sex– How much more intimate can one get, being inside of each other?- so it definitely speaks to our culture and our times that intimacy doesn’t/can’t/we refuse to it have always be part of the sex equation for different reasons.

  12. Looking at the comments of those who see things differently from me I still can’t figure something out:

    How do you feel comfortable with what I experience as “aloof intimacy” — two concepts which to me don’t seem to go together? How do you experience becoming so physically intimate as to enter someone else’s body, or have your body entered, or fondled, while maintaining a sense of emotional remoteness? How does that work for you?

    Especially when probably all of us have grown up in a society that teaches us that we have our “private parts.” We grow up learning that and then suddenly those private parts are just opened up to anyone? I don’t mean to sound judgmental (although I realize it may come across that way). I just don’t get it, and I’m trying to understand.

  13. I’ve held hands sometimes with my girlfriends when walking somewhere in public. And there is an intimate sign to that. But, where does other signs of affection rank with intimacy compared to hand holding in public? For example, if being affectionate in public, I like my arm around my gf’s shoulder or her back when walking instead.

  14. I think holding hands can be intimate, but not more or less intimate then sex. Sex with out feelings attached is just sex, but intimate sex Is an important key to a successful relationship, at least in my opinion.
    If you don’t like and or love the person you’re having sexual intercourse with then what’s the point? Just friends with benefits? I personally can’t do the friends with benefits thing, I was always brought up differently bout things like that, I was raised to treat our selves better than that. Now when it comes to holding hands and how it can lead to being intimate then yes I could agree to that being very intimate. I know whenever my fiancé and I, when her and I hold hands it leads to us being very intimate, kissing, etc… But I don’t see how holding hands could be more intimate than sex.

  15. Personally I can some what agree with the men that are asked about what they find more intimate. I feel like maybe hand holding along with non-sexual connections are more intimate than sex now a days. These days sex has become something that is no longer just between two people who love each other but an extracurricular activity. Not to say that having sex with whoever you want is necessarily bad, but there is hardly any real intimacy behind people just having sex with someone they don’t have a deeper connection with. It seems as though people are holding hands less now a days and just holding genitals. The hand holding has become something like an endangered animal. You see it but soon it might just be extinct.

  16. In my experience, holding hands mean a lot more than having sex. When I love someone with all my heart, everything I need is spending my time with her, holding hands, talking about everything in the world, and letting my soul and hers get into each other. In a relationship, sex is just a need as people need to eat, drink, entertain, and so on. But, having a soul mate is the real happy ending of every relationship. People can have one-night stand easily by appearing in a classic suit or fancy dress at the clubs plus a skillful flirting ability. Having someone understand them is truly a big issue and sadly, not much people found theirs. Especially, people need a soulmate the most in their hard time. In those rough moments, people can face and conquer anything on their ways if there is someone, who is always trust them and is willing to be by their sides no matter how bad the situations are. In the tough time, an awesome sex life doesn’t help them solve the problems but a holding hand with their soulmate can.

  17. In my way, I believe handholding has more intimate than sex. It’s because handholding is a intimate action with someone who also has same feeling with you, of coz, you can also said that having sex also is a intimate action. But, I think that’s the aloof intimacy because sex is kind of private part, we won’t easy to having sex with someone that only have intimate action, right?
    Moreover, sex is only a moment feeling, it won’t stay long so some people will lost intimate after they having sex. But handholding is different, it will let you taste an ambiguous feeling and you will try to do again with your intimate one.

  18. I can totally relate – I think holding hands with someone implies a more permanent choice. It means that not only do you care, but you don’t mind other people knowing it. It’s a symbol of coupledom whereas sex might just be a fun night or a way to get some release.
    Of course sex CAN be way more intimate, when you’re with a partner who knows you very well, but that’s not the only kind of sex, nor is it the only kind of good sex.
    But holding hands is something I’d only do with someone I felt quite close to and sure about, and I DO object to random people taking my hand. I don’t even like to shake hands, I find that an odd convention, one I never initiate and do my best to avoid.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. Like I said, most people don’t mind someone shaking her hand. But there can always be exceptions.

      I’m still curious about this question though:

      How do you feel comfortable with what I experience as “aloof intimacy” — two concepts which to me don’t seem to go together? How do you experience becoming so physically intimate as to enter someone else’s body, or have your body entered, or fondled, while maintaining a sense of emotional remoteness? How does that work for you?

      Especially when probably all of us have grown up in a society that teaches us that we have our “private parts.” We grow up learning that and then suddenly those private parts are just opened up to anyone? I don’t mean to sound judgmental (although I realize it may come across that way). I just don’t get it, and I’m trying to understand.

      • Well, I think intimacy is emotional, not physical. It’s not really about which body parts I’m using but the things I’m feeling.

        Love and lust are two different things. I don’t think of it as aloof intimacy because it’s not really intimate at all, nor is it necessarily aloof. It’s passionate and sexy, but the focus is on pleasure and bodily sensation.

        I believe my body parts are mine to share (or not), and to enjoy, and as long as the sex is consensual, then they can be used in any number of ways.

        I believe my heart is private and my body is an instrument that was built for touching and being touched. Having sex with someone you aren’t emotionally invested in can be very freeing. You aren’t worried about seeming selfish. You aren’t worried about being judged. You give yourself over to what your body feels and wants, and you can learn so much about yourself in the process.

      • Thanks. I appreciate your taking a stab at the question, and expanding a bit more. But I still don’t get this: we are taught that our private parts are private, so how does physical intimacy not feel intimate? So much of how we experience things is unconscious that I suspect you may not be able to explain it to me. But if you have any more to say on the topic, I’m still curious.

  19. I think that sex without the emotional bond can be appropriate and good if thats what you want. Whether you think that’s the best it can be is a different matter. But there is something very touching about holding hands, and particularly if its in public. There is an element of the two of us against the world, and there can be a sense of mutual ownership too. So it’s really quite complex. Sex can be just as complex, and much more intimate, but it really doesn’t have to be, and in fact often that’s not wha people are looking for when they hookup.
    Good post, and clearly provoked a lot of good discussion. What more could you want from a blog?

    • Thank you. I’m still trying to understand how people who are different from me feel about this question, though (I’ve never seen any research that discusses it):

      How do you feel comfortable with what I experience as “aloof intimacy” — two concepts which to me don’t seem to go together? How do you experience becoming so physically intimate as to enter someone else’s body, or have your body entered, or fondled, while maintaining a sense of emotional remoteness? How does that work for you?

      Especially when probably all of us have grown up in a society that teaches us that we have our “private parts.” We grow up learning that and then suddenly those private parts are just opened up to anyone? I don’t mean to sound judgmental (although I realize it may come across that way). I just don’t get it, and I’m trying to understand.

      I’m hoping to write a follow-up post that addresses many of the comments that were made along with — with any luck — an answer to the question I just posed.

  20. Which is more intimate? Handholding or a hand job?…
    Handholding probably comes after hand job nowadays (and just sometimes)
    I found this post sweet!~ At the end love entrains so much more than sex. Aquileana 😀

  21. I think like others have said before me, it varies from situation to situation and person to person. You don’t hold hands with someone you’re simply hooking up with. If anything, hand holding will probably in a manner of speaking remain more intimate than sex. The form and meaning behind hand holding implies something of value and worth holding on to, I guess for me it does. While sex is done behind closed doors and may or not be with someone I’m emotionally invested with. There is no implied meaning behind sex from others’ like there is with hand holding. That said, It also varies from person to person – in some sharing themselves, they’re insecurities and lying naked with someone is probably the most intimate thing imaginable to them. But personally, I find that holding hands in combination with emotionally connected sex is probably far more intimate than both those things alone in my own relationships.

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